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Asylum Seekers

Volume 458: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2007

I am pleased to have this debate on the treatment of asylum seekers. The atmosphere in which asylum is normally discussed in this country has become deeply poisonous because of the role of much of the media in misreporting the plight of many asylum seekers. That in turn encourages politicians often to ignore their plight, and our feeling of humanity towards people less fortunate than ourselves is hardened and, to some extent, almost disappears. In this country, we are very good at exaggerating our role in history concerning people who are seeking asylum and a place of safety in this country, but when we consider how they are currently treated in this country and the delays and horrors that they go through, not just in this country but throughout Europe, we should take a slightly different view.

At the moment large numbers of people try to escape from poverty, oppression, difficulties and sheer misery in many very poor countries, mainly in Africa but also in parts of the middle east and south Asia. The reports one reads of the plight of people trying to get from the coast of west Africa to the Canary Islands from which they can gain entry to the European Union are horrific. An eye-witness account of what happened in October last year off the coast of the Canary Islands states that 20 migrants were missing after their inflatable boat sank off the Canary Islands on 5 October. Another report states that 17 people died after their boat went adrift off Sicily channel, among them five women and three children, on 7 September.

The reports go on. For example:

“Nineteen people died on August 11, after a gas cylinder exploded aboard a boat directed to Canary Islands”,


“Twelve died and 22 were missing after a pirogue heading for the Canary Islands sank”.

So it goes on.

In March last year, a representative of the Red Crescent was asked to describe the situation, and said,

“they are prepared to commit suicide. For them it is like the Russian roulette game; I arrive or I die.”

It was then believed that between 700 and 800 people, the majority from Mali, Gambia and Senegal, attempted to cross each day.

I mention that, not because it is the direct responsibility of the British Government or the House, but because it is a Europe-wide phenomenon and we are part of a Europe-wide border arrangement. The horrors of what is happening to many desperate and very poor people who are trying to get to the Canary Islands, Sicily and other southern European countries are very serious, and for the sake of humanity we should have some respect for the lives of those people and see what we can do to assist them.

The reports that are eventually published show the shocking desperation that some asylum seekers face. For example, on 19 March last week, the BBC website stated, and it was widely reported in the media, that:

“Uddhav Bhandari, 40, set himself alight in the Eagle Street Building, Bothwell Street, Glasgow, which is home to the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal.”

He was clearly desperate. The report continued:

“The father-of-two had been living in Edinburgh for six years and worked as a volunteer, helping to recycle bicycles.”

He set himself alight and died. Robina Qureshi, director of Positive Action in Housing, said:

“Uddhav Bhandari spent six years trying to seek refuge here and bring his wife and two kids over to this country…Forbidden to find paid work, he worked as a volunteer…Last night, he died alone in hospital a few days after setting fire to himself…He was a victim of an asylum policy that persecutes and tortures the victims of persecution and torture.”

Tragically, that is not the only time that somebody has taken their own life, either in that dramatic setting or alone in cells in various detention centres.

Will the Government, when formulating policies to deal with asylum, immigration and detention, have greater regard for people’s human feelings and sense of desperation? No Member in this room has ever had to seek asylum—that sense of having to give up everything to try to seek safety somewhere else.

My hon. Friend’s debate is timely, if a little premature, because on Friday, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which I chair, will publish a full and detailed report on the treatment of asylum seekers. Although it remains confidential until it is published on Friday, the evidence that is already in the public domain clearly supports the horrific stories that we have heard about the way in which people are treated. It is a breach not only of the European convention on human rights and the Human Rights Act 1998, but of basic common humanity, which in far too many cases is not observed.

I am pleased to hear that intervention from my friend, who is the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I look forward to the report, and I hope that it receives the widest possible publicity and debate, encouraging the Government where necessary to amend not only legislation, but above all, policy on the treatment of asylum seekers.

Does my hon. Friend recall that in the Glasgow Herald, the report of that same tragic suicide included the story of a family for whom the white vans appeared in the night? They were dragged out, the father was handcuffed in front of the children, and his children were detained in the same van before they were taken to a detention centre. It was equally brutal treatment.

I thank my friend for drawing attention to that story; it is not, unfortunately, an isolated case. I assume from the remarks of the Chair of the Joint Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), that the Committee’s report will take up such issues. Such treatment is a disfigurement of any civilised society. Those people have not committed any crime other than to seek a place of safety for themselves, their partners and their children, and we must mend our ways.

I represent a constituency in which a large of number of people have sought asylum; it has traditionally been such an area. Much of my casework relates either to local issues—housing problems and the other normal problems that MPs receive—or to asylum seekers, who are often desperate simply to get answers from the Home Office to their letters. Sometimes, half the people whom I see at a Friday advice surgery come to me not with a problem, but with the question, “Why can’t the Home Office answer the question, answer the case and respond to letters?” They laugh wryly when they read the part saying that a reply will be sent within 13 weeks. I say, “It didn’t say the year in which the 13 weeks was up,” at which point my comment is laboriously translated, and the humour is often lost in translation.

People who come to this country to seek a place of safety want to do a number of things, such as learn English and contribute to society, and they are keen to do their best. If we take away the opportunity for English lessons that are paid for by the public purse, what are we doing? We are not saving ourselves any money; we are preventing a great many people from learning English, which is not a sensible policy.

Although I realise that the Minister responding to the debate is not responsible for that issue, he knows that I have entered into correspondence with the Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning about concerns raised by City and Islington college in my constituency. I imagine that other Members from other constituencies would raise similar points about the need for English for speakers of other languages—ESOL—teaching.

The absence of any access to legal aid, and, when people are eligible for it, the shortage of legal aid solicitors to represent them, is also stressful for many people. Many strong cases are lost, forgotten or badly represented, because the applicant receives poor advice and poor representation. Once poor representations are made, it is hard to retrieve a case. I hope that the Minister present realises that justice means not only the provision of a judicial system, but the right to be represented within it. Legal aid is an important part of that system.

I have constituents who receive National Asylum Support Service vouchers and accommodation. The plethora of companies and agencies that are meant to be responsible for the administration of the vouchers and accommodation is quite bewildering. The administration is often inefficient, grossly incompetent and quite cruel to the individuals concerned. I shall not name them, because it would be embarrassing to them.

However, I can think of an elderly man in my constituency from west Africa who relies entirely on those vouchers for his existence. There is no way—I hope—that he would ever be deported, because of his age and condition. He does not find walking or getting around very easy, and the vouchers often do not arrive, or they are late, or they are for the wrong amount. However, what are his options? He cannot draw money out of a cash machine; he does not have any. We should think about the sort of lives that people have to endure.

NASS often changes the accommodation arrangements for people whom it has housed, moving them from an area where they have relations, the same community, and linguistic and community support. Such areas are important to them: if one comes from a war-torn society or a place of political oppression, having people from a similar background nearby is important for building up one’s self-esteem and sense of connections. Unfortunately, NASS has great difficulty in recognising that factor, and it looks around for yet another accommodation agency to place an applicant. They are shunted outside London, if they previously lived there, or to somewhere miles away. All that community support is lost, and a sense of isolation and depression takes over, or worse, they suffer racist attacks. I hope that those concerns will be understood when the Joint Committee’s report is considered—and indeed in the Minister’s response today.

The Government have been keen on getting tough on asylum seekers. I shall make two points about that issue. First, section 9 of the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Act 2004 is used to withdraw benefits from people, which forces them into poverty. Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International, provided a strong quotation to The Guardian on 7 November 2006, when she said:

“Forcing people into destitution as an attempt to drive them out of the country is backfiring badly and vulnerable people are suffering. Refused asylum seekers are being reduced to penniless poverty—forced to sleep in parks, public toilets and phone boxes, to go without vital medicines even after suffering torture, and to rely on the charity of friends or drop-in shelters to survive.”

In my constituency, I know of situations in which a poor family—perhaps surviving on income support—have come from another country, gained status legally in this country, and then taken in another family who have no income whatever. The very poor are looking after the desperately poor. I am sure that my colleagues have similar stories. We must be far more reasonable about the issue. Around London, the people who one sees begging are, increasingly, asylum seekers who are exercising their legitimate right to appeal, but who are not allowed to gain any support in the meantime.

Secondly, there is the question of detention, which sits with that issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) will be well aware of the lack of safety in Harmondsworth detention centre. Anne Owers last year described the centre, which holds 500 men facing deportation at any time, as having slipped into

“a culture wholly at odds with its stated purpose”

since a riot took place there in 2004. She went on to describe the centre’s conditions, of which my friend will be well aware.

My hon. Friend will remember that in Anne Owers’s report, she undertook a survey of the residents at Harmondsworth detention centre. A high percentage were fearful for their very safety and extremely concerned by the bullying that was undertaken by the private company running the centre.

That is absolutely so, and I thank my friend for that intervention. The way in which that place has been run is a disgrace, and I assume that the Joint Committee report will deal with those issues.

The Joint Committee’s visit to Yarl’s Wood detention centre is also in the public domain. We were all disturbed when we saw the way in which children were detained, and the impact that it had on them. They are often very young children, and often they are not detained for a short period.

I, too, visited Yarl’s Wood with my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) last year. There is something deeply shocking about children being locked up in prison conditions. I am not talking about the food, the play facilities or that sort of thing; the reality is that they are locked in a prison, as far as they are concerned, and no society should be imprisoning children. Neither those children nor their parents have committed any crime. All that those people have sought is a place of safety in this country, but they are threatened with deportation and, in the meantime, put in detention. That is simply not acceptable and that policy should be ended.

There is also the issue of deportation and removal from this country to countries that are not signatories to any of the appropriate conventions. I am talking about Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Algeria. Monitoring the people who are deported to those countries is impossible, and they are not safe when they return there. The first of the two countries that currently concern me a great deal is Algeria. I have a substantial Algerian community in my constituency. The Prime Minister apparently received an undertaking from the Algerian Government last year that they would not torture people who were removed to Algeria from this country. The Algerian authorities seem either not to have understood that undertaking or to have decided to take people into custody for offences other than those from which they had sought asylum. I understand that no removals to Algeria are taking place currently, but I should like the Minister to give a clear undertaking that no one will be removed to Algeria or any non-convention country. If we believe in the international conventions on torture and all the other conventions, we should not deport people to places where they would face such problems.

Does my hon. Friend not look on almost with incredulity, as every day we hear the numbers of deaths in Iraq—50 people have been bloodily murdered today as a result of terrorist activity—and yet we as a Government still forcibly deport large numbers of people to Iraq from Brize Norton?

I find it incredible, particularly when one hears daily of the carnage in Iraq. Indeed, I understand that two days ago 13 asylum seekers from Darfur in Sudan who had been refused asylum in this country were being held at Oakington removal centre. Three of them have removal directions through British Airways to Darfur, where they will face all the horrors of the conflict there.

The situation is desperate and a number of things must be considered. The Institute of Race Relations report, “They are Children Too” by Liz Fekete, is a newly published study of Europe’s deportation policies, and an excellent document it is too. The document describes how asylum seekers have been badly treated throughout Europe. It also gives chapter and verse on the details of what has happened to a number of families in Scotland, and what has happened in Yarl’s Wood detention centre and a number of other places. I hope that the Minister will read this newly published document and will take on board its points about the Europe-wide treatment of people. Although we are not responsible for every other country’s immigration or asylum policies, we are part of the European Union. We have a voice and we can influence what happens there. I hope that, instead of being the country most ramping up anti-asylum policy, we can become a force for good and inspire a more liberal approach to such matters there.

So that the Minister has sufficient time to reply, I should like to finish with two points that have been put to me. First, I have received a brief from a new group, the Just Fair campaign, which makes three simple proposals that would do a great deal to alleviate the problems from which many asylum-seeking families suffer. First, the group suggests that we

“Continue financial support and accommodation to refused asylum seekers as provided during the asylum process”.

In other words, asylum seekers should stay on benefits if they would be eligible for them throughout the asylum process. Secondly and importantly, the group says that we should

“grant permission to work until such a time as they have left the UK or have been granted leave to remain.”

It is absurd that skilled people such as doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers, carpenters, plumbers and gardeners are absolutely forbidden from working, even in a voluntary capacity, and it is frustrating for them. The situation is ludicrous. Who is it helping and who is it harming? The third proposal is:

“Continue to provide full access to health care and education throughout the same period.”

Denying health care to people is obviously cruel to the individual, but it is also counter-productive to the interests of public health.

Finally, I should like to quote from the memorandum that the Save the Children Fund submitted to the Joint Committee when it was investigating asylum seekers. The charity’s key recommendations were:

“The UK government should withdraw its reservation to article 22 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child…The government should address the particular situation of children in the reform of the immigration and asylum system to bring it into line with the principles and provisions of the UNCRC…We urge the JCHR to investigate the compliance of the draft Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children…Reform Programme with the Human Rights Act”.

Serious allegations have been made against this country in its treatment of asylum seekers. I hope that the publication of the Committee’s report will mark the beginnings of a greater understanding of the plight of asylum seekers, what they have faced, why they come here, and the positive contribution that they want to continue making to this country. I hope that that will be the start of a change of approach and a change of attitude. We do not need to enter an auction with the Daily Mail and the Daily Express about how we treat asylum seekers. We need to use humanity as the basis of our treatment of people.

It is a privilege, which I do not believe I have had before, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. It is also a pleasure to respond to the debate that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) initiated. I am not sure whether he will remember this, but I was a constituent of his for some time. Indeed, I was a ward secretary in his constituency party for a brief period in the late 1990s, so it is a privilege to respond to this debate.

I should like to say how much I appreciated my hon. Friend’s starting point. Very often in debates about asylum, particularly in certain parts of the media, there is a conflation of the issues of humanitarian protection, the need to protect refugees, how we treat those seeking asylum and how we treat those who have failed in their asylum claims with those issues concerning people who come here to work, to study or, sometimes, to visit. There is a conflation of the whole issue of migration with that of those who are seeking asylum. That is extremely dangerous and has the potential to jeopardise this country’s proud tradition of offering humanitarian protection, refugee status and asylum to those fleeing persecution, torture or worse in different parts of the world.

In a sense, it is not an enormous surprise that we have run into that conflation. Since the 1960s, the pattern of global migration has transformed beyond all recognition. Migration has approximately doubled since the 1960s. There has been a marked increase in the annual rate of migration since the mid-1980s. There has also been a surge in the number of people seeking asylum, particularly since the mid to late 1990s, not just in this country but in different parts of Europe, too. The question that that left us with from 1997 onwards was: how do we create a system that can identify those who are in genuine need of asylum as opposed to those who are not? Asylum is an extremely important and time-honoured status, but the challenge that we have faced is that, as the statistics over the past seven or eight years show, some 70 per cent. of asylum claims have been deemed to be unfounded. That is problematic, because it has put an enormous amount of pressure on the system. The integrity of the system is important, because it must work effectively, in order to grant asylum to those who are genuinely in need of it.

The modernisation of the past few years is important, because we see the issue in even sharper relief when we think of what is still to come. World Bank and International Monetary Fund estimates show that the number of young people coming into the labour market in the developing world is projected to total some 1 billion extra between now and 2020. When we consider the difference between take-home pay in the developed world and that in the developing world, we see that there may well be strong economic incentives, mentioned by my hon. Friend at the start of his comments, for people to come to developed countries. There is therefore the risk that if the asylum system is not made to work effectively, it will be abused.

Obviously, the system that we inherited in 1997 was designed for a different era—it took not eight weeks, but about 22 months to make an initial decision. As a result of the time that it took to modernise that system, considerable backlogs of asylum claims built up. Last May, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was extremely honest, forthright and ambitious in his desire to get all the information about the backlogs looked after by the immigration and nationality directorate. In July, we said that there were about 465,000 cases—case files, not individuals—sitting with the IND. The director general of the IND is reporting regularly to the House on our progress. A large number of the cases have already been dealt with or relate to people who have left the country, passed away or regularised their status in different ways. None the less, my right hon. Friend estimates that it will take four or five years and considerable investment for the cases to be processed.

A number of changes have been made that address some of my hon. Friend’s points, particularly those about administrative reform. By next month, we will have achieved our target of setting up different kinds of asylum teams in different parts of the country. There will be a single case owner for an individual claiming asylum, rather than the bureaucratic run-around of cases being passed for different kinds of decisions to different sorts of people in different parts of the country. All that has now been swept away. Instead, single case owners will look after a single file and, most importantly, a single individual. They will make all the relevant decisions. That is an important step forward because it means that the case owner will be able to build up a much more sophisticated, nuanced understanding of the individual case. Frankly, that will unlock a great deal of the humanity that my hon. Friend seeks and ensure that decisions are made much faster than they are today. When decisions are long and drawn out, I fear that there is scope for injustice to creep in.

Is any priority given to long-standing cases in respect of which there has simply been a bureaucratic run-around and no answers have been given to anybody? Such cases lead to the most incredible tensions in families.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out our proposals on the issue, he said that we would prioritise cases that we were concerned posed a risk of harm to the public. We were also clear that cases in which there has been mishandling or maladministration must be prioritised too.

I shall deal quickly with some of the points that my hon. Friend raised. The one point that I want to stress is that when the treatment of people who have failed in their asylum claims is debated, something is often forgotten—the work that we do to encourage people to go home voluntarily. We work closely with the International Organisation for Migration and are extremely grateful for its assistance in putting together what it says is a world-leading scheme, which helps people, with up to £3,500 of support, to build a life back in their home countries.

The issue of legal aid is extremely important; as my hon. Friend knows, different procedures have been put in place to make sure that resources are targeted at meritorious claims with the greatest chance of success. As the number of asylum seekers—now at its lowest since 1993—comes down, it is incumbent on the Legal Services Commission to make sure that there is no distortion in the market, or, if you like, drying-up of supply. It is vital that the commission should keep that under constant review.

We have also debated the question of detention. I am anxious to explore alternatives to detaining children. Sometimes, parents have a responsibility too; when I sign off cases of children who have been in detention for some time, I often find out that that has been because their parents have been disruptive or abusive or have exhibited dangerous behaviour towards staff—